Lawns: are they worth it anymore?



The planet has accelerated its revolt against us and we still maintain our lawns, a part of the Earth that we can control. Society is faltering, resources are dwindling and, always, lawns.

Lawns: burnt, blond and dead, August air fryer. Lawns: emerald green — no, extraterrestrial green – and kept so by maniacal vigilance and an elaborate system of pipes and potions, organic and otherwise, in defiance of ecology. And why? To have, in this chaos, dominion over something? (Lawn and order?) To drape a veil of greenery over a world in seed? Feel equal or superior to Ron across the street, whose lawn still looks like 18th at Pebble Beach?

We swept away our anxieties under those green comfort blankets for a while. A “smooth, clean-shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the lot of a suburban home,” wrote Frank J. Scott in 1870, at the time of the first patent for lawn mower, in a book entitled “The Art of Beautifying Small-Scale Suburban Residential Lots” (Chapter XIII: The Lawn).

“To ‘enhance’ both home and landscape, planting a good lawn is vitally important,” a caption in The New York Times said in 1937.

At that time, during the Great Depression, the Mattei family in Cincinnati had no lawn. They had a yard, and the yard was functional. It was for chickens and tomato plants. It wasn’t for weed. One of the Matteis, Vic, used the GI Bill to go to graduate school and become a researcher. He started his own family in the Philadelphia suburb of Cinnaminson, NJ, in a subdivision that paved over Quaker farmland to accommodate Americans tinkering with the Aegis radar system for the RCA Corp. neighbor. Everyone in the subdivision had a lawn, of course. What was the American dream, in the 20th century, if it wasn’t covered by a quarter acre of Kentucky bluegrass or tall fescue, which is good for recreation and admiration and not much to d ‘other ?

Vic had a few token vegetable plants on the property, but the yard was not for survival. The yard was for the lawn, and the lawn was for mowing.

“He mowed the lawn every Saturday,” says Vic’s daughter, Edamarie Mattei. “And it was a success: having the lawn. To mow the lawn.”

It is now half a century later. Specifically Friday, August 12, 2022. Mattei, a landscaper, stands on a lawn in a leafy crook in Bethesda, Maryland. She talks to the owner of the lawn to get rid of this.

“It helps nothingsays MJ Veverka of her lawn, which she has watered, weeded and mowed for 31 years — and why? The lawn is static, non-functional, tedious. Last year, Veverka filled in the pool from her backyard, removed the surrounding lawn and enlisted Mattei’s firm to turn the space into an oasis of native plants, a “local national park,” in the words of the company. a popular movement for the regeneration of biodiversity. Veverka loves the backyard so much – which is now an evolving work of horticultural art and a working part of the surrounding ecosystem – that she wants to do the same with her front yard.

First step: Go away, lawn.

Mattei spent more time educating customers on the benefits of turf removal and native plantings; over the past two years, for some reason, new clients have started coming to her with these same ideas. Perhaps the quarantine has amplified the similarity of the lawns. Perhaps in this climate-conscious age we are thinking outside of the strict geometry of the lawn, which Mattei describes as “ecologically dead” – a “monoculture” in a world that needs biodiversity.

For a century, from around the 1870s to the 1970s, Americans slowly fell in love with lawns. Lawns were a sign of taste, calm, power, privilege, order, discipline, especially after the Second World War.

“On the American lawn, men use electrical machinery and chemicals, the tools of war, to engage in a battle for supremacy with Mother Nature,” writes Virginia Scott Jenkins in her book “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession”.

Over the past 50 years, we’ve slowly stopped loving lawns. They started pointing out waste, disregard, disharmony, homogeneity, gentrification, zombie boomerism.

“Wasn’t there something a little decadent about millions of Americans applying millions of pounds of fertilizer and pouring millions of gallons of water on the soil to grow something you couldn’t eat unless you were a Jersey cow?” Columnist Ellen Goodman wrote in the Boston Globe in 1977, “Wasn’t there something weird about them spending millions of gallons to cut it?”

“I think we are growing as a country,” Mattei says. “For much of American history, it seemed like we had unlimited access to the land, and we continued to extract and build on it. I see a real shift between seeing land as a demonstration of power or success and seeing land as a valuable resource. »

She adds: “When we are lawn people, we are one thing. When we’re not lawn people, we’re something else.

We are still, for the most part, lawn people. Largest crop, by area, in the United States? Not corn or soy, but grass. Unproductive Ornamental Lawn: About 40 million acres, or 2% of the area of ​​the Lower 48, according to several estimates cited by Garik Gutman, NASA Land-Cover/Land-Use Change program manager.

Forty Million Acres: The entire state of Georgia couldn’t contain America’s total turf. And we pour 9 billion gallons of water on the landscaping every day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, the southwestern United States suffers a mega-drought; the past two decades have been its driest since 800 AD. California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency in October. In a water-thirsty world, lawns are a sneaky siphon.

These days we have “No Mow May”, where neighbors test each other’s tolerance for non-compliance. We’ve got Twitter users sharing before and after photos of their “War on Lawns”, which transform flat slabs of sickly green into colorful realms of puffy flora. We have a channel on Reddit called NoLawns and TikTok hashtags such as #antilawn, which might direct you to a rendition of a secular anti-lawn song by a 27-year-old Nashville musician named Mel Bryant.

“Back then, all my neighbors were obsessed with their lawns,” says Bryant, who wrote the song on Earth Day 2020. “Everyone was constantly mowing, every day. At all times you heard lawn mowers running. And it drove me crazy. I still have this neighbor who, I swear, on the 4th of July, he was mowing at 7:30 p.m. What are you doing, man? It can wait.

Bryant’s song has racked up tens of thousands of views, spreading via TikTok’s #cottagecore hashtag, where young people advertise their cozy, quaint, sustainable and back-to-nature ethos.

“Everyone has the perfect lawn,” says Bryant of his street in Nashville’s Rosebank neighborhood. “They seed their lawns. They have sprinklers and s—. I think it has to do with a more old-school, boomer generation of the idea of ​​what American life is. And our lawn…” Well, Bryant let it grow wild. “I think it’s quite generational. I’ve certainly noticed over the past few years that so many people my age are getting into gardening, taking their lawns and turning them into gardens.

Walt Whitman wrote of the grass in 1855: “I suppose it must be the flag of my temper, from a hopeful green cloth.”

Says Hank Hill, a fictional propane salesman in Texas, in 1997: “Look, some people are raising a flag to show they love our country. Well, my lawn is my flag.

But the lawn has become a liability – or in some cases an asset, provided it is removed. California’s main water utility pays customers between $2 and $5 for every square foot of live turf they remove. Last year, Nevada banned certain types of lawns; instead, the state legislature banned the use of water from the Colorado River dribble to power certain types of “non-working turf,” which in southern Nevada sucks up to $12 billion. gallons of water each year (more than 10 percent of the state’s use of the river). The law created a committee to sort out “functional” turf from “non-functional”; discussions took place on how to categorize “pet rescue” areas and “golf course wedding lawns”.

Before the law was passed, Sun City Anthem, a community of working adults in Henderson, Nevada, had already removed nearly 40,000 square feet of grass, which cut its water bill nearly in half. Facility manager and landscaping supervisor Larry Fossan replaced the lawn with xeriscaping: native plants like lantana, cacti, Mexican feather grass. Last year on the property, Fossan saw something he had never seen before in Nevada: monarch butterflies, about 25 of them, migrating through it.

“There are flowers, colors, butterflies, hummingbirds,” Fossan says of life without a lawn. “At different times of the day, you see different things. We have rocks for people to sit down and be part of the scenery. When we had weed, people would come into the building, but now they stop and “ooh” and “ah.” The landscaping is intended to be interactive. It is meant to be part of your life.

Lawns, of course, are part of your life. You throw a soccer ball at them, you picnic on it, you lean on it and you wade on it. A few years earlier Dave Marciniak wrote a polite defense of lawns on his landscape company’s blog: “Why does the anti-lawn movement kinda bother me.” The turf serves a purpose, he wrote. It is soft and durable for leisure. It provides visual relief for the eye and contrast for landscaping.

Marciniak welcomes changing tastes in landscaping, but notes that they change slowly.

“Even though Americans like to call themselves tough individuals, there’s a lot of looking around to see what other people are doing,” says Marciniak, who lives in Culpeper, Virginia. “I explain to people who defend the anti-lawn: listen, this will not happen overnight. If you want to keep people away from lawns, we have to show them that it can be beautiful, it can be desirable. And perhaps most importantly: “It can make the neighbors jealous.”


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